I’m really good at feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing around in the depths of depression is a hobby of mine. A skilled complainer, I am quite prone to prolonged sessions of eloquent venting, followed by a good cry. I flourish in affirmation and could easily die of disappointment. My own anxiety both inspires and intimidates my growth. If there is sickness to be had, I will suffer thought it. If there is credit to be earned, I’ll spring to martyrdom.
Therefore, I always thought Ash Wednesday was about me. I was created by God and will return to God, from dirt and to dirt. I need to forgive or be forgiven. I perceive the guilt of my troubling lot as motivation for the next few weeks of Lent. In high school, I followed suit with my Catholic friends and gave up sweets or caffeine. I read my bible every night for 40 days of my sophomore year of college. I have used Lent as an excuse to pray, workout, take more “time for myself,” diet, and revel in self-improvement. Ash Wednesday was a means to both an end and a beginning in my life. Unlike Advent, there was not hope or anticipation, only a continuation of pity and loathing for myself.
But the ashes of my neighbor reveal that Lent is not about self. More specifically, it’s not about ME at all. The black cross on the foreheads of my kin show that I am just a former butterfly, previously a flower, a waving, joyous palm. I am just a few crumbs of burnt ash amongst an infinite amount of suffering. I share ashes with brothers and sisters across the world. I was born from them, I will die to them. By popping out of my me-bubble, stepping down from my soapbox and clearing the dust from my eyes, I see the ashes of my neighbors on my hands and face.
Do I, like Pilate, simply wash away the responsibility so that I can again only see myself in the mirror? Or can I wash away the ash, put on a little make-up, and utilize my privilege and happiness to serve my community? Fasting means nothing if the uneaten food remains uneaten. Praying seems self-righteous when not directed away from myself. Selflessness is challenging, not only because it means giving of oneself constantly, but also, eliminating visual, mental or emotional credit. When tired, it is appearing very awake; when sad, it is providing a smile. It is not “taking one for the team,” but just simply being part of the team…being a part of the neighborhood of ash.